Wanting to help people locate that perfect lawyer to handle their divorce, sue the jerk who totaled their car or whatever else, the State Bar of California has started up a new “Find a Lawyer” program.

But there’s one big hitch. Searching by area of practice or expertise won’t be an option.

After a tortured debate in San Francisco on Friday afternoon, the State Bar Board of Governors by a vote of 11-8 approved a new “Find a Lawyer” program that will let the public search a soon-to-be-built Web site by languages spoken and geographic area.

Searchers will be able to examine attorneys’ profiles — such as where they went to law school and their phone numbers — and be provided photos of the attorneys, a map to their offices and a link to their own Web pages.

But forget about looking under area of practice. That was deemed too risky.

Searching by area of practice was blocked by lawyer referral services, which asserted that attorneys who self-designate themselves as experts in certain fields could be fibbing and that average citizens — mistakenly believing the lawyer has been thoroughly vetted by the State Bar — could find themselves with a dud.

“The State Bar will be explicitly or implicitly implying that that lawyer is an expert,” Thomas Kuhnle, immediate past president of the Santa Clara County Bar Association and a member of the 10-person “Find a Lawyer” task force, told governors on Friday.

Julia Wilson, the executive director of the San Francisco-based Legal Aid Association of California, agreed: “I would not have the same comfort level telling people to go search the State Bar Web site” for experts. She noted that the state’s many independent or local bar-operated lawyer referral services ensure that the attorneys they recommend are what they say they are.

Friday’s meeting began with fractured reports from the “Find a Lawyer” task force, with the seven members representing the State Bar Board of Governors disagreeing with the three members from local bar associations. Although there were some concerns last year that the State Bar’s “Find a Lawyer” program would compete financially with the outside lawyer referral services, by Friday the divisions had come down to whether the public could search by area of practice.

Several Bar governors at the meeting ridiculed the idea of having a lawyer search program that doesn’t include area of practice.

“That is the only way this is user-friendly for the public,” Jeannine English, one of the board’s non-lawyer members, argued.

Bar governor John Peterson, of counsel with Fresno’s Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo, agreed, calling it “absolutely silly to have a search engine that doesn’t include practice areas.”

The strongest advocate for a State Bar-operated “Find a Lawyer” program was John Hodson, a partner with Vacaville’s Hodson & Mullin and vice chairman of the State Bar’s Family Law Section. He accused the lawyer referral services of trying to protect their financial interests and ridiculed them for insinuating there were “160,000 John Dillingers out there” waiting to prey on citizens.

At one point, English moved to kill the “Find a Lawyer” program altogether, but that failed by a vote of 15-4.

A couple of Bar governors said they thought the State Bar shouldn’t be in the lawyer referral business at all, but agreed to go along with the compromise that eliminated searching by practice.

Bar governor James Aguirre, a lawyer with Los Angeles’ Richardson & Fair, summed up the outcome best: “Is it perfect? No. But it’s a step in that direction.”